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Josh Sanburn: Dr. Ben-Meir on a “Golden Opportunity” for Middle East Peace

It’s safe to say that many who study the Israeli-Palestinian conflict view the current situation as dire. Just look at the facts on the ground. Hamas is in firm control of the Gaza Strip after a Palestinian unity government broke apart in 2007. Mahmoud Abbas, the current Palestinian president in the West Bank, is viewed favorably by the West but is often considered an ineffectual leader among Palestinians. And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues approving settlements in the West Bank, seemingly pushing the hopes of a Palestinian state next to Israel further and further down the road. Dr. Alon Ben-Meir sees it differently. The World Policy Institute senior fellow and author believes that some of the issues most analysts view as problems could actually help bring lasting peace to the region. Speaking in midtown Manhattan on Tuesday, Ben-Meir laid out five elements he believes have changed the dynamics of the region and took both Israel and the Palestinians to task on failing to move Arab-Israeli peace forward. But his talk focused primarily on Hamas and its relations with the Arab World. “Hamas needs to be told that the continued violent resistance against Israel will bring about its own demise,” Ben-Meir said. “It is Hamas that will be destroyed, not Israel.” But, he noted, only the Arab World as a whole can push Hamas to officially give up violence. “They’re the only ones that can create change within Hamas,” said Ben-Meir, citing statistics that estimate 70 percent of Hamas funding comes from Saudi Arabia. “Without Saudi money, Hamas would collapse.” According to Ben-Meir, there are five elements that have changed regional dynamics. Two, in particular, some may find counter-intuitive: most analysts view Netanyahu's right-of-center government as being opposed to peace talks, and see the split within the Palestinian community between the center-left Fatah Party and the militant party, Hamas, as an obstacle to eventual statehood. But Ben-Meir believes that with Netanyahu in power, Israeli hawks will be forced to work with the Palestinians. He called on the Israeli government to follow in the footsteps of the Kadima party in 2005, when then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (a longtime hawk himself) removed settlements from the entire Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. “Israeli settlers must be told that there is no future for Israel short of a two-state solution,” he said. “Israel needs to understand that it can’t expand settlements indefinitely.” As to the political divisions within Palestinian politics, Ben-Meir believes that Hamas is beginning to recognize that progress is being made in the West Bank, which is governed by Fatah. He noted that recent polls show a growing disillusion with Hamas's more militant politics. “Hamas is not blind,” he said. “They see that moderation pays off. If the election were held today in the West Bank and Gaza, Fatah would win handily.” Hamas has not recognized the existence of Israel, which Israeli officials have insisted on for years as a precondition to peace talks. But Ben-Meir does not believe this is necessary. There is another way out for the Islamic group—accepting the Arab Peace Initiative, which was introduced in 2002 by Saudi Arabia, and calls for normalized relations with Israel and an end to the conflict. It has been discussed as part of the Obama administration’s plan for peace, but Hamas has yet to sign on. “Hamas is not just a band of killers,” he said. “They have an agenda. They have a social and political system. And they know there is no way they can be part of the political process unless something changes. You have to provide Hamas a face-saving way out. And the Arab Initiative does just that.” Above all else, Ben-Meir sees the Obama administration’s immediate focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the possible tipping point. President Obama quickly appointed George Mitchell as a special envoy to the MIddle East, and he has been very active in trying to get both sides talking. Mitchell has repeatedly met with Prime Minister Netanyahu recently regarding Israeli settlements. “The Obama administration has a golden opportunity to achieve what others couldn’t," Ben-Meir said. "The role of the U.S. remains indispensable. But I don’t feel there would be peace in a second term. It must happen now.” Josh Sanburn is a graduate student at New York University studying international relations and an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

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